The Boston Bruins come into the 12 NHL season as the reigning Stanley Cup champions after defeating the Vancouver Canucks four games to three in the Finals. Many prognosticators are predicting great things once again from the Bruins but the club's most pressing issue is an offense that will score fewer goals in the upcoming campaign. To that end, the key question for Boston is: where will the scoring come from?
Don't forget, the Stanley Cup champs are just two years removed from finishing 29th in the league in goals scored. They moved all the way up to the eighth spot with a 40-goal improvement last season but four forwards either had career highs or tied their career high in goals, and the squad did not adequately replace the production lost from Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder.
Boston is banking on the natural progression from youngsters, such as Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin, along with more tallies from Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. However, if the first pair fails to improve and the second duo scores as it did once arriving in Beantown (six combined goals in 47 games), then the Bruins will tumble heavily in the goals-for category.
Boston will still be one of the top defensive teams in the league even if Tim Thomas cannot duplicate his phenomenal 2010-11 performance. Remember, the Bruins finished second in goals-against two years ago with Tuuka Rask starting almost half of the games.
Given the fact only one of the last five Stanley Cup winners has garnered more points the following season, it's fair to say that Boston will not improve from its 43-25-11 record.
BOLD PREDICTION - Rask winds up as Boston's No. 1 goalie by January.
The team that should be favored to win the Northeast Division is Buffalo. The Sabres were only three wins behind Boston while finishing 9th in scoring even though center Derek Roy missed 47 games and their second leading goal-scorer Drew Stafford missed 20.
The main reason Buffalo ended up seventh in the Eastern Conference was a defense that never got its act together without Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder. New owner Terry Pegula went out and fixed the situation by acquiring Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, which should ease the pressure on goaltender Ryan Miller.
Given all the changes, including bringing in Ville Leino from Philadelphia, the burning question for Buffalo is: how long will it take for all the pieces to fit together?
The answer is not long at all. The Sabres play a similar style to Vancouver so Ehrhoff should fit in without a hitch, especially if paired with Tyler Myers. Regehr is a stay-at-home defenseman and his play will have a huge impact on the entire team. Look for Buffalo to finish first in the division.
BOLD PREDICTION - Thomas Vanek sets a new career-high in goals with 44.
CAN CAREY PRICE REPEAT LAST SEASON'S SUCCESS?
Montreal took the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins to the limit in the first round of the playoffs before dropping an overtime decision in the seventh and final game.
Goalie Carey Price came through with his finest postseason performance after recording career bests in wins (38), goals-against average (2.35), and save percentage (.923). The 24-year-old started 70 games last year but he showed his splendid conditioning allowing two goals or less in 12 of his final 17 regular season contests.
However, given the fact a large number of top-notch goaltenders (Thomas, Miller, Rask, Roberto Luongo, Jimmy Howard, Miikka Kiprusoff) have failed to fire in back-to-back seasons of late, one can safely assume Price's GAA will rise and his save percentage will fall in the 2011-12 campaign.
BOLD PREDICTION - P.K. Subban leads all NHL defensemen in goals with 20.
CAN TORONTO IMPROVE ITS HORRENDOUS SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY?
There is cause for optimism in Toronto this season after the club finished with a 37-34-11 record last year - the first time the Maple Leafs wound up with an above .500 record since 2007-08. Unfortunately, the 85 points was not good enough to make the playoffs. (Toronto has not enjoyed the fruits of the postseason since 2004.) This year might be the turning point if the club can turnaround its special teams.
The power play ranked in the bottom third of the league for the second straight season last year but with the additions of Tim Connolly, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, and a full season from Joffrey Lupul, Toronto finally has two solid units that should boost the goals-scored with the man advantage.
Of course the season will also depend on improving the penalty kill. The Leafs moved up to a tie for the 27th spot after three consecutive last place finishes so there is some hope. Nevertheless, the roster changes they made will not help them when down a man, so it's doubtful they'll be able to move further up the ladder in the penalty kill category.
Toronto should be in a four-team race come late March for the final playoff spot in the East but will tail off over the final 10 games to miss the postseason for the seventh straight year.
BOLD PREDICTION - Phil Kessel reaches 40 goals for the first time in his career.
HOW MUCH FIGHT IS LEFT IN OTTAWA'S VETERANS?
The Senators will be banking on a number of young guns this season but there are still a few holdovers from the team that reached the 2006-07 Stanley Cup Finals.
Injuries and poor play weighed heavily on the Sens last year as Jason Spezza missed 20 games and Daniel Alfredsson played in just 54 with only 31 points. Moreover, defenseman Chris Phillips, who was a plus 36 the year the Senators lost to Anaheim in the Finals, was a minus 35 last year, good for last in the entire NHL.
If Ottawa is to avoid a last place finish in the Eastern Conference, all three players must not only remain healthy but improve from dreadful campaigns.
BOLD PREDICTION - Nikita Filatov receives top-line minutes and scores 20 goals.
PREDICTED NORTHEAST DIVISION STANDINGS
1) *Buffalo 2) *Boston 3) Montreal 4) Toronto 5) Ottawa
* - PLAYOFF TEAMS